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By the 1930s, gray wolves had been exterminated in the Western United States. "Wolfers" used such methods as lacing buffalo carcasses with strychnine, collecting bounties for pelts and scalps, even setting the animals on fire. The battle to bring wolves back began in the early 1970s, after Congress passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which encouraged the recovery of imperiled species in their native ranges. Some 20 years later and after considerable controversy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) put the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan into motion: In 1995 a band of dedicated biologists captured 29 gray wolves in the Canadian Rockies, then released them into central Idaho and the northern stretch of Yellowstone.

Back in New York I daydreamed of leaving my studio apartment and running away to study wolves, but I had a demanding job as a magazine editor. Then in January 2010, I got laid off. I had three months' severance and no savings. Maybe the first thing I should have done was look for work. Instead I headed back to Wyoming.

Cold wind ripped across the tarmac as I watched pilot Lisa Robertson climb around her shiny four-seater Cessna, checking the wings and struts with the grace of a ballerina. Even in a white goose-down jacket, black fleece pants, and Uggs, she looked elegant.

For ten years, Robertson flew local wolf biologists around at no charge so they could track wolves from the air, but gas was getting too expensive. "I knew some wolves by sight," she said. "Every day I just wanted to be out there."

As we flew over the Buffalo pack's territory, I searched below for their dark, low figures running, most likely in a line. I saw a huge bloodstain in the snow—a kill, and a sign that the pack had been there. I wanted so badly to catch them in action, sprinting 35 to 40 miles per hour through the snow, the alpha wolf giving silent signals to cut left or veer right. I wanted to witness that initial leap, a set of jaws sinking into the flank of an animal.

Wolves are built for hunting, their bodies perfectly designed for the takedown. Their jaws are capable of exerting more than 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, and their molars are able to crush bone. Their canines can hold on to the nose of a moose running 35 miles per hour. They can bound 16 feet in deep snow—that's like jumping the length of a station wagon—and their digestive systems are so efficient that wolf excrement is mostly hair and bone.

Robertson circled in case the pack was still nearby. We flew for two hours without spotting a single wolf.

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